Redefining Marriage, Part 7: The Irrelevance of Marriage?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Back from family vacation to (hopefully) wrap up my series on marriage in the next few days or so. (Incidentally, today Suz and I celebrate 20 years of wedded bliss!)

In Part 5 and Part 6, I argued that a key part of the social impetus for the institution of marriage—not the transcendent or interpersonal meaning of marriage, or the motivation for individuals to marry, but a key part of the value of marriage to the society that recognizes, supports and honors it, of why it “works” or benefits society, why all known civilizations and cultures throughout history have always recognized the enduring union of a man and a woman as a unique institution and the privileged context for sexual relations—is to regulate sexual activity between men and women for the good of society and the next generation.

From society’s perspective, uncommitted sex is a liability, largely because it disadvantages the children of such liaisons. That’s why societies throughout history have always, to one degree or another, discouraged such behavior—why marriage has always been the normative context for sexual relations between a man and a woman.

I’ve also argued that this social function of regulating sexual relations between men and women is contingent upon the social mechanism of problematizing sex outside of marriage. In combox discussion it was noted that while sex before marriage was far from unknown, e.g., in the 1950s, if a pregnancy did occur marriage often followed. Such patterns are obviously not identical to the practice of Christian sexual morality, but they converge closely enough with the social impetus for the institution of marriage to provide a useful level of regulation, and to provide the necessary support for the next generation.

It follows that the less socially problematic sex outside of marriage becomes, the less effectively the institution of marriage functions to regulate sexual activity between men and women. Unfortunately, this is precisely what our society has lost over the last several decades. Due in significant part to the rise of the contraceptive culture (Part 2), sex outside of marriage is no longer socially problematic in the way that it was not many decades ago, and as a result marriage as a social institution no longer effectively functions for the good of society. Premarital sex, cohabitation and serial divorce have risen catastrophically, with a disastrous rise in illegitimacy and children growing up without fathers—and the economic, educational and behavioral disparities that correlate with fatherlessness.

Because marriage as an institution no longer effectively fulfills its social raison d’etre, marriage in our day has become to an extent a social institution without a recognized mission—an institution we retain but no longer understand. Many people today no longer see the point of marriage.

In particular, a growing marriage gap increasingly divides social haves and have-nots. Not only is it the case (as it has been throughout history) that intact families and present fathers enhance the economic, social, and educational potential of their children, now the reverse is also the case: those least likely to get married and stay married are increasingly the less well-off and less educated. The meme “Marriage is for white people,” which hit the news cycle about five years ago, reflects a particularly catastrophic marital collapse in the black community. (This has not always been the case; not many decades ago poor people and minorities married at much higher rates, to the benefit of their children.) Thus the correlation of non-intact families with economic, educational and social limitation becomes a vicious cycle, a downward spiral for those caught in it.

Along with the value of marriage, the constitution of marriage as regards both fidelity and permanence is increasingly called into question. There is still a viable emotional and contractual objection to adultery as an act of betrayal and injustice—but this is predicated on an accepted ethic of fidelity that is rooted in part in the procreative meaning of the sexual act. That ethic of fidelity is greatly weakened in our day (though it is actually somewhat improved from its low point in the 1970s). While it is still reasonably clear that furtive and dishonest running around is shameful and hurtful, why marriage should be understood from the outset as an exclusive commitment, why allowances for extra-monogamous relationships should not be made from the outset, is no longer taken for granted.

For example, the New York Times best-seller Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by the husband-wife team of Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, argues that monogamy is contrary to mankind’s evolutionary origins and that human beings are naturally polyamorous. (The paperback edition subtitle is “How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships.”) Although the authors claim that they aren’t arguing against monogamy (Ryan has likened monogamy to vegetarianism, saying that people can choose it if they want to), their thesis certainly undermines the moral normativity of marriage, which they claim is an economically motivated institution that subordinates women. (Not that they’re putting it down or anything.)

Sex columnist Dan Savage, who is gay, has breathlessly hailed Sex at Dawn as “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948.” Savage is among a number of commenters who want to see society at large redefine its conception of marriage, not only to qualify same-sex relationships as “marriage,” but also to change its unrealistic expectations of fidelity for heterosexual couples, adopting a model more like, well, what a gay sex columnist thinks relationships should be like, which is basically a loosey-goosey pledge of mutual love in which expectations for outside sexual fulfillment may be negotiated by the partners.

Savage has even argued that openness and honesty about outside sexual gratification in his relationship with his partner has made their home a more “stable” environment for their adoptive child. In part, of course, that’s an easy claim for a man interested in men, where outside flings don’t involve potentially procreative acts. It’s also an arrangement more likely to be congenial to two men than to a man and a woman, given the woman’s greater investment in having sex with a man. (For some good perspective on Savage’s views, see Ross Douthat.)

More to come.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10